Today, the debate on genetically engineered (GE) foods has become more passionate than ever. The practice of different modes of growing food crops spotlights conflicting values and visions for the future of agriculture and the increasing use of biotechnology.
The complex issue of coexistence of different farming methods now includes environmental safety, sustainable development of agriculture, globalization and the economic protection of local producers. Unresolved debates about the safety of GE crops at local, national and global levels continue in the form of "not in my backyard" arguments.
Because of the complexity of the topic of genetic engineering, distinctions among environmental, agricultural, economic and socio-ethical issues have become blurred. This fuels confusion and the wider debate about the acceptability of genetic engineering and the coexistence of GE and non-GE crops.
In September, Maui Mayor Alan Arakawa joined representatives from the agriculture community at a meeting hosted by Monsanto at their Kihei location. The issues discussed were environmental safety, sustainable development of agriculture, coexistence and protection of local producers.
Photo: Cindy Schumacher
In September, the debate continued at a meeting hosted by Dan Clegg, Monsanto Corporation's land and resource manager, at the company's Kihei location. Included in the discussion and tour were Maui County Mayor Alan Arakawa and Executive Assistant Rob Parsons, as well as scientists, educators and farmers representing a variety of agricultural methods.
All participants agreed to disagree with aloha.
"I support agricultural biotechnology until it is proven unsafe," said Mayor Arakawa. However, Rob Parsons sees a huge philosophical difference between what constitutes farming.
"Corporate-controlled, huge agri-business is a very different model from regenerative or organic farming, which is a whole-system approach," said Parsons.
The main line of conflict at the meeting was between those who promote food-crop biotechnology applications as a safe and sustainable addition to the food production toolbox and those that defend less industrialized cropping systems. Members of the latter group often advocate preserving traditional agricultural practices through banning GE technology.
"I thought the meeting had some very respectful and thoughtful interactions," said Marilyn York, Monsanto operations lead.
"There is a lot of misinformation being circulated on the Internet," she said. "It is really hard for us to present a view counter to what may be the popular 'vogue' of understanding on this subject. Those who disagree with Monsanto as a company do not trust the science we are practicing. Getting people together to discuss the issue could be very instrumental in presenting Monsanto in another light, as a company of concerned scientists using technology to make this a better place to live."
Moving towards appropriate coexistence of methods will demand flexibility in farming regulations. Yet, it remains to be seen whether any coexistence policy can succeed in reconciling the different positions on the future of agriculture and the role that food-crop biotechnology might play.
Clegg believes there are many successful ways of farming and more than one way to produce food.
"In fact, Monsanto sells both conventional and biotech seeds to its customers," Clegg said.
"In addition," Clegg said, "many farmers plant both GE and non-GE crops simultaneously. Farmers can grow organic, biotech and conventional crops on the very same farm."
For example, on Hawai'i Island in the 1990s, ring spot virus devastated commercial papaya production. Cornell University Researcher Dr. Dennis Gonsalves discovered a way to use the genetic portion of the virus to inoculate papayas against the disease.
"Growers embraced the technology, and the industry saw a turnaround," said Clegg. "Today, many farmers grow biotech and non-biotech papaya side by side without fear of cross-pollination."
Melissa Jenks-Olivit, Sailing Wind Farm and vice president of Maui Farmers Union United, voiced her concern about biotech's risks to the environment and humanity.
"I think biotechnology could be useful," she said. "However, many more long-term studies should be done before unleashing new products into the world."
"The wide-ranging issues, questions and opinions were discussed at length and the operations at Monsanto's site were clearly presented, including a tour through their field trails and greenhouses," said Harold Keyser, who has a Ph.D. in soil microbiology from University of California Davis. Dr. Keyser is a recently retired research scientist and administrator in the College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources at University of Hawai'i at Manoa.
"This approach to addressing an important, complex and controversial subject, in a community conversation generating more light and less heat, is in the best interest of everyone," said Dr. Keyser.
One of several questions from GE critic Becky Sydney was directed to Dario Bernacchi, Ph.D., one of Monsanto's local experts in field research.
"If Bt corn has the Bt toxin in every cell of the plant, does it remain active for the life of the plant, making it a living pesticide?" asked Sydney.
"The words toxin and pesticide are misleading in this question," said Dr. Bernacchi.
"Bt stands for Bacillus thuringiensis, which is a naturally occurring soil bacterium that is popular with organic and conventional farmers. Because it is species-specific, it affects only Lepidoptera (ear worms), and has no effect on other plants or animals."
"Bt is proven safe as demonstrated by its use in both organic and conventional farming over 50 years," continued Dr. Bernacchi. "In the case of Bt corn, there is a single protein present that controls the infestation of ear worms on the plant."
"Proteins are the building blocks of life," said Dr. Bernacchi. "Each and every cell needs hundreds of proteins to function. Bt corn plants have the single Bt protein that protects it from the ear worms, with the added advantage that spraying pesticides for that pest is no longer necessary."
Lokelani 'Ohana President and Biodynamic Farmer Christina Chang asked, "Are farmers having their crops taken if they are contaminated by neighboring GE fields?"
"It has never been, nor will it be, Monsanto policy to exercise its patent rights where trace amounts of our patented seeds or traits are presented in farmers' fields as a result of inadvertent means," said Clegg. "One can tell the difference between cross pollination on the fence line versus a field planted purposefully."
The meeting continued with an explanatory and educational tour by Monsanto's scientists.
Monsanto gives presentations and free tours of its farm site for groups interested in learning more about the company's activities in Hawai'i. A typical tour covers information about Hawai'i's seed industry, Monsanto's research efforts globally and locally, the work being done in Hawai'i and the products being produced. It also offers a first-hand look at some of the company's local operations.
For more information go to www.monsanto.com/hawaii or call (808) 879-4074.